It’s no secret to anyone who spends any time in 1 Corinthians that the disciples were suffering serious problems due to their divisiveness. Paul points to this out at the start and returns to it frequently throughout the letter. It is one of the major themes in 1 Corinthians. I suppose there They were several reasons for their factionalism —they were immature, worldly, and over-influenced by their culture to think and act as individuals rather than as community—one of the continuing plagues of Western culture.
There are many passages addressing the problem of division, from Paul’s opening salvo in 1:10ff to his extended discussion of spiritual gifts (12-14). Throughout this latter section, he specifically takes on individualism. He writes, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). With this, Paul goes to their spiritual roots to show the corporate nature of coming to Christ. While it’s true we make the decision to come to Him as an individual, the one Spirit gave them new life (John 3:5-7; Titus 3:5-7). They came into the one body of Christ. They received the one Spirit.
This is worth thinking about because it challenges the paradigm of how people in the West tend to think about coming to Christ. They see it as an individual act all the way through. Paul challenges this on three fronts—we share in receiving life from the one Spirit, we become part of the same body and we drink of the same Spirit. These last two bear a closer look.
There is a false understanding that in conversion we receive the Spirit independent of others—almost like a transaction at a store. We present ourselves to God in baptism and He gives us the Spirit and we go on our way like the Ethiopian did. Paul informs us that baptism places us into community—the body of Christ. We might come as the result of an individual decision, but we are immediately become part of a community. Then because we are part of the one body, we share in the one Spirit. We do not receive it as isolated or independent entity, we receive it because we are part of the one body where the Spirit dwells. If someone made the decision to no longer be a part of this community—they wouldn’t be taking the Spirit with them because it resides in them as they reside in the body.
All of this is a death blow to kind of individualism practiced in the West. God isn’t against individualism, but healthy individualism is rooted in community. Still working from the body of Christ truth, Paul recognizes that we are different parts of that body (an eye, ear, or arm). But no part exists independent of the body!
To learn to look at ourselves and others through the eyes of community as opposed to lens of individualism is a big step for most of us, but it will significantly enrich our lives and improve our usefulness in the kingdom of God.